Is the pro-Israel media lobby losing its grip?

The current chaos in the Middle East has left partisans on both sides angry and bitter. Among the most frustrated, though, may be the pro-Israel pundits who have dominated the debate in the U.S. for decades.

Israel's aggressive incursion into the West Bank, in which 5,000 Palestinians have been arrested and hundreds killed, may mark a turning point in how the conflict is seen in the United States. Suddenly the
pro-Israel media mantra -- that Israel's fight is America's fight, and that the two countries aren't simply allies, but brothers in arms with inseparable goals -- is being viewed with some new skepticism.

Polls show Americans remain strongly committed to Israel's security. Yet there's evidence that the nation's cadre of relentlessly pro-Israeli commentators, most of them neoconservatives, have quietly lost their corner
on American public opinion. Instead of shaping it, they're caught chasing it. Their media crusade to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein, for instance, seems to be foundering, thanks to weeks of Israeli/Palestinian chaos.

A majority of Americans told NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters that an Iraqi invasion should be delayed until Middle East violence subsides. And other major national polls show that Americans increasingly question the
premises of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's incursion into the West Bank, Israel's most aggressive military operation in two decades, and how it will achieve peace…

But it was odd on Monday to hear the mostly Jewish crowd boo longtime pro-Israel hawk Paul Wolfowitz, now a deputy defense secretary, merely for suggesting at a Washington rally that innocent Palestinians hurt in the current conflict deserve some sympathy too. The crowd clearly opposed Secretary of State Colin Powell's peace mission, as well as President Bush's attempts to get Sharon to rein in his military operation.

The boos for Wolfowitz were a measure of how embattled many pro-Israel American Jewish hawks feel, especially given Bush's call last week for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territories "without delay" (a
call, it must be noted, that Sharon has ignored with impunity). Clearly Israel's media lobby is not having the success it once did calling the shots in Washington and maintaining public support.

The dynamics could soon change, particularly if another wave of suicide bombers is unleashed. But for now, a Palestinian perspective that was once almost completely absent from America's mainstream press is being heard by Americans…

It's already clear that an increasingly open debate is underway here about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's a debate the conservative press has long tried to stifle. As Eric Alterman recently wrote at, "For reasons of religion, politics, history and genuine conviction, the punditocracy debate of the Middle East in America is dominated by people who cannot imagine criticizing Israel."

SEE: Intractable Foes, Warring Narratives

You know who they are: William Safire of the New York Times; George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Michael Kelly at the Washington Post; Lally Weymouth of Newsweek; Martin Peretz of the New Republic; Daniel Pipes and Andrea Peyser at the New York Post; Peggy Noonan and Robert Bartley at the Wall Street Journal; William Kristol of the Weekly Standard; Mortimer Zuckerman at U.S. News and World Report; Morton Kondracke, Fred Barnes, Brit Hume and Tony Snow at Fox News; and William Bennett, a paid CNN contributor, just to name a few.

They still cannot imagine criticizing Israel. But others can. Conservatives could not have enjoyed watching pro-Israel advocate Daniel Pipes getting grilled recently by Fox News' self-styled blue-collar moderate Bill
O'Reilly. In what until recently would have been considered an unthinkably aggressive stance regarding Israel, O'Reilly, who's made no secret of his suspicion of American Muslims post-Sept. 11, belittled Pipes' claim that the Israeli incursion into the West Bank was analogous to America's bombing of Afghanistan, took issue with his suggestion that 90 percent of Palestinians "want Israel destroyed," and pressed Pipes about what people were supposed to think when they saw Page 1 photographs of Israeli policemen clubbing peace activists in Tel Aviv…

SEE: Who is Daniel Pipes?

Meanwhile, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, usually a fan of the mainstream's conventional wisdom, recently derided the claim that Arab leaders would privately welcome a U.S. action in Iraq, as "neo-con claptrap." Matthews has gotten increasingly fed up with uncritical defenders of Israel as well as proponents of an immediate Iraq invasion. Both O'Reilly and Matthews pride themselves on their scrappy, common-sense approach to politics, so their change of heart spells trouble for staunch defenders of Ariel Sharon.

Perhaps more worrisome for the Israeli media lobby is that, at least for the moment, it has lost some of its pull inside the White House. And worse, lost it to its least favorite Cabinet member, Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Just as the current crisis was unfolding, the Weekly Standard's Kristol, along with more than two dozen other conservatives, sent Bush an open letter advising him how to proceed. The letter suggested that the U.S. treat Arafat as a terrorist, that Bush give Israel unconditional support, and that he move ahead swiftly on his plans to topple Saddam Hussein.

To date, none of those recommendations have been embraced, which is why the Israeli punditocracy in America has been lashing out at the White House, washing its hands of Powell's trip and publicly ridiculing the administration. While there's some suspicion that Powell does not have full White House backing for his peace mission, the fact that he's there at all, meeting with Arafat, riles pro-Israel hawks in the press…

Perhaps most surprising is the fact that nearly 40 percent of Americans consider the violence committed by Israel against Palestinians to be terrorism, according to an ABC News poll. The Israeli lobby's pundits have
for weeks argued relentlessly that Israel is merely fighting terrorism alongside Uncle Sam. Yet 4 out of 10 Americans think Israel is conducting terrorism in the West Bank…


Muslims condemn AJC attempt at political exclusion

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based Islamic advocacy group, today condemned the latest attempt by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to marginalize the American Muslim community.

According to the Washington Post, AJC officials have demanded that President Bush and Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) return political contributions from individuals who were targeted by recent raids on Muslim
businesses and homes in Virginia and Georgia. No arrests were made in those raids.

According to the Post, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said the president has not returned the contribution as demanded by the AJC. "This is an ongoing investigation. There have been search warrants that have been issued, but there have not been any charges made," said Buchan.

Moran said he would not return the contribution because he knows of no illegal activity by the donors. "In our system of justice, you're innocent until proven guilty -- not the reverse," said Moran.

"This is yet another example of the American Jewish Committee capitalizing on anti-Muslim prejudice and legitimate post-September 11 security concerns in a transparent attempt to marginalize and disenfranchise the American Muslim community. Elected officials should not succumb to politically-motivated and disingenuous strong-arm tactics by special interest groups like the AJC," said CAIR Governmental Affairs Director Jason Erb.

Erb added that the AJC has in the past supported the use of secret evidence against Muslims and Arabs, withdrew from an amicus brief to the Supreme Court because of Muslim involvement and demanded that a Muslim speaker be excluded from a public forum designed to promote intercultural understanding.

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris wrote in the May 28, 2001, issue of The Jerusalem Report: "We dare not underestimate the Arab and Muslim lobbies [in America] or delude ourselves as to their ultimate objectives. The stakes are too high. The call for action by American Jewry, together with Israel, is clear."

In a report, titled "The Jewish Stake in America's Changing Demography," published on the web site of the Center for Immigration Studies, AJC Senior Fellow Dr. Stephen Steinlight falsely portrays Islam as a violent,
intolerant and anti-Semitic faith that is a threat to America. He wrote:

"…undoubtedly the greatest immediate threat to the well being of the American Jewish community and its interests stems from large-scale immigration from the Muslim world.

"At the risk of being labeled the fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread, it must also be acknowledged that classic Islam itself, the traditional faith - and not the hideous political ideologies derived from
it - is itself not unproblematic in its attitudes towards Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims."


New voluntary interviews create perception of profiling

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based Islamic advocacy group, is expressing concern that plans announced today by Attorney General John Ashcroft to conduct "voluntary" interviews of an additional 3,000 foreign nationals could perpetuate the impression of racial and religious profiling against American Muslims and Arab-Americans.

Ashcroft said the new interviews will be similar to almost 5,000 conducted since November. Fewer than 20 of the initial interviewees were arrested, all on charges unrelated to terrorism. The new interviews will be conducted with men from specific unnamed countries.

"American Muslims, like all Americans, condemn terrorism in all its forms and seek to ensure the safety of our nation against acts of violence. We believe however that rounding up the 'usual suspects' based on nothing more than race, religion or national origin is not an effective law enforcement technique and creates the perception of profiling," said CAIR Board Chairman Omar Ahmad. Ahmad added that anyone who has information that could be of use to the investigation should come forward now and not wait until being contacted for an interview.

Congressman John Conyers, Jr., Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, also criticized the plan for new interviews. A statement released by Conyers in response to the attorney general's announcement read in part:

"The suggestion that Arab and Muslim Americans appreciate begin singled out and interrogated is a prime example of the Attorney General's wartime propaganda machine in full swing. While they are more than willing to contribute to the war against terrorism, the national leadership of Arab and Muslim organizations have expressed to me their outrage over this illegal form of racial profiling.

Spreading lies and misleading the American public will only further alienate hard working Americans and divide the country. While the Bush Administration speaks of uniting the nation, its continued racial profiling, interrogation and detention of thousands of Arab and Muslims is having the opposite effect. It is time for the President to realize that the only thing these practices will secure is the downfall of democratic freedoms in America."